Something in the Woods – Valley of Shadows / Spoor

Shortly before this month’s film festival began, I ended a two-month binge on Hong Kong cinema with a journey back into the mysteries of the European woodlands, visiting Norway and Poland in the recent past of 2017. Coming on the heels of my folk horror documentary review, you’d be forgiven for thinking I planned it – and although there’s an argument to be made that these films could be considered as folk horror, my initial reference point was their potential classification as werewolf (or other shapeshifter) films. As to whether this is actually the case… well, it’s complicated.

There’s a tendency among some reviewers to reduce everything to plot, as if the way in which a story is told is completely irrelevant to its quality. Some people even deride films they haven’t seen purely on the basis of a Wikipedia plot summary – especially frustrating when that summary has been written by somebody who clearly didn’t understand what they were watching. It would be very easy to describe the plot of Valley of Shadows [Skyggenes dal] (2017) in a trite one-to-two sentence summary, but this would be doing the film a great disservice and would in no way convey the experience of watching it.

The focal character is Aslak (Adam Ekeli), a young boy living in rural Norway with his mother Astrid (Kathrine Fagerland). Their lives are defined in part by the absence of his older brother (never named), a junkie being pursued by the police for unspecified violent crimes. Aslak’s only friends are his dog Rapp and Lasse (Lennard Salamon) – an older boy who lives nearby and goes to the same school. Sneaking into a barn together to look at a dead sheep, the latest death in a spate of killings believed to have been committed by a wolf, Lasse tells Aslak that he believes the killer is actually a werewolf. Not long after the police inform Aslak’s mother of his brother’s death, Rapp goes running off into the woods chasing something… and still hasn’t returned by the evening. Unable to wake his mother the next morning, Aslak sets out into the woods to look for Rapp by himself.

As we experience the film from Aslak’s perspective, much of what is happening needs to be pieced together from sparse fragments of overheard dialogue, or completely dialogue-free stretches where we can see that adults are talking but can only guess what they’re saying from context. Zbigniew Preisner’s music is similarly sparse, creating an underscore of melancholy solitude resonating with the open landscape and muted colour palette – until Aslak begins his journey into the forest, at which point Lisa Gerrard’s gorgeous contralto bursts forth and the music swells majestically to match it, creating an eerie, almost fairytale-like atmosphere. It’s at this point that Marius Matzow Gulbrandsen’s cinematography really comes into its own, working in concert with the score to evoke the feel of a spiritual quest into the wilderness. I fell thoroughly in love with this section of the movie, sound and image working hand-in-hand to create something transcending a simple recitation of events. (I’ve been listening to the soundtrack while writing this review in order to bring the movie alive in my head again, which has been a mixed blessing, since it just reinforces the idea that my words are inadequate.)

I don’t really want to say anything more specific about the story beyond this point. On an emotional level, both Aslak and Astrid make at least some progress in coming to terms with their feelings of loss. While we do learn whether or not Rapp and Aslak will be reunited, the truth about Lasse’s werewolf hypothesis is left entirely up to the viewer – and I can easily imagine different people formulating their own “obvious” explanation about what really happened. Some people might find it all too straightforward, others might find it frustratingly inconclusive – but the film is bracketed with a definite emotional arc and the lack of any explanatory dialogue is, to me, a virtue. It’s not a film to be explained, it’s a film to be experienced – and that experience is something I’d be more than willing to repeat.

Valley of Shadows is the first feature from director Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen, coming six years after a series of award-winning short films. He co-wrote the screenplay with Clement Tuffreau, who had previously co-written a film called Sam Was Here (2016) but – more intriguingly to me – also directed NYC Foetus (2009), a documentary about Australian experimental musician Jim Thirlwell. Zbigniew Preisner has been a film composer since 1983, scoring major works by directors such as Krzysztof Kieślowski – Dekalog (1988), The Double Life of Veronique [Podwójne życie Weroniki] (1991), Three Colours: Blue [Trzy kolory: Niebieski] (1993), Three Colours: White [Trzy kolory: Biały] (1994), Three Colours: Red [Trzy kolory: Czerwony] (1994) – and Agnieszka Holland – Europa, Europa [Hitlerjunge Salomon] (1990), Olivier, Oliver (1992), The Secret Garden (1993). His musical collaborator Lisa Gerrard grew up in Melbourne among a range of musical influences, forming neoclassical darkwave/world music band Dead Can Dance with Brendan Perry in 1981 and contributing to a vast number of soundtracks over the years. I’m not familiar with Marius Matzow Gulbrandsen’s other work as a cinematographer, but the film which jumps out at me is Marko Raat’s Lumekuninganna (2010), a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen [Snedronningen] (1844) for adults.

Speaking of Agnieszka Holland, she’s responsible for the other half of my double bill – Spoor [Pokot] (2017), a faithful adaptation of Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead [Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych] (2009). The original title “Pokot” is a Polish hunting term that refers to the count of wild animals killed (and since I implicitly trashed Wikipedia earlier, it’s only fair to thank them for pointing this out), which as far as I’m aware has no English equivalent – but the substitute title “Spoor” is equally relevant.

In contrast to the young male protagonist of Valley of Shadows, Spoor‘s lead character is an old woman. Janina Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat) has led an adventurous and nomadic life, a civil engineer who built bridges for disadvantaged communities in the Middle East when she was younger. In her twilight years she’s settled down in a cottage on the outskirts of a Polish village near the Czech border, living alone with her two beloved dogs and teaching English at the local primary school. She’s a fervent believer in astrology and thinks evolution is nonsense, but it’s her love for animals that makes her an eccentric in the eyes of the townsfolk, who glorify hunting. Even out-of-season hunting, which is technically illegal, is tacitly endorsed by the local police and all of her complaints about the matter go nowhere.

When her dogs fail to return home one evening, Janina is devastated, but her efforts to pursue the matter are – as ever – stymied by official indifference. Even the local Catholic priest (Marcin Bosak) is aggressively unsympathetic, telling her that it’s a sin to treat animals with the same consideration as people and that she should pray for her soul. (In a sermon delivered much later in the film, he even has the gall to describe St Hubert – patron saint of hunters – as “the first ecologist” while identifying hunters as “God’s ambassadors to nature”.)

Against this backdrop, Janina isn’t terribly upset to learn that one of her neighbours – a poacher known as Big Foot (Adam Rucinski) – has choked to death on a bone, being rather more interested in the way the local deer appear to be watching his house. When the local police chief (Andrzej Konopka), another hunter, is found dead in the vicinity with deer tracks leading away from his body, Janina tries to convince the authorities that the local wildlife are taking revenge on their oppressors – but although she is met with the ridicule you’d expect, the deaths don’t stop there.

As the story progresses, Janina forms her own little gang of misfits. There’s her elderly neighbour Matoga (Wiktor Zborowski), a social recluse who’s skilled with explosives; Dobra Nowina (Patrycja Volny), a sweet young woman trying desperately to get her younger brother away from their abusive parents, and who is being sexually exploited by violent local businessman Jaroslav Wnetzak (Borys Szyc); Dyzio (Jakub Gierszal), a similarly young IT specialist working for the local police who is hiding his epilepsy and devotes his spare time to translating William Blake into Polish; and Boros Schneider (Miroslav Krobot), a Czech entomologist with a thing for pheromones who hooks up with Janina after finding one of the bodies.

This is a film which revels in demonstrating that life doesn’t stop just because you’re old. Janina, Matoga and Boros are all in their mid-sixties but continue to live life to the full when given the opportunity. They put on animal costumes and dance at parties, they smoke joints around a campfire, there’s even a sex scene – which, while less pneumatic and lingering than your typical erotic escapade, is still frank and has the potential to make younger viewers squeamish (delighting the director no end I’m sure). As for the spate of murders, Spoor contrasts again with Valley of Shadows, providing a clear and definitive answer as to who or what is responsible and why.

I’ve been aware of Agnieszka Holland’s reputation as a talented filmmaker since the release of Europa, Europa but have somehow never quite gotten around to watching any of her work. She is credited as “scenario collaborator” on Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy and appears to split her working life between Poland and America. Although her feature film work has slowed down since the 1990s, she’s developed a healthy sideline in directing episodes of high profile US/Canadian TV shows such as The Wire (2004-8), Treme (2010-13), The Killing (2011-12) and House of Cards (2015-17) – she even directed the TV miniseries remake of Rosemary’s Baby (2014), which I’d never considered watching until now. Speaking about Spoor to The Guardian, she provided the following delightful statement: “One journalist for the Polish news agency wrote that we had made a deeply anti-Christian film that promoted eco-terrorism. We read that with some satisfaction and we are thinking of putting it on the promotional posters, because it will encourage people who might otherwise not have bothered to come and see it.” Holland brought her compatriot Kasia Adamik onboard to assist with the direction, although I wasn’t able to determine why or the extent of her contribution.

I have no intention of providing any definitive answer as to whether both, either or neither of these films includes a werewolf or any other related creature – but I’d certainly encourage you to watch them and find out for yourself.

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